I have always lived in places where a large industry or two dominates the economic landscape.

As a child it was subtle – the sugar mill & the fishing industry were key to our local economy – later overtaken by seaside tourism. As an adult coal mining and car manufacturing dominated and to a lesser extent wine grapes (somewhat more pleasant but still with significant social responsibility impacts).

Adelaide is where I live now. One vocal and/or major economic player is the auto sector – and rumblings from them don’t bode well for the long-term viability of Holden manufacturing in this state.  It is likely at some point in the not-so-distant future, many of the approximately 50 000 employees and 150 related parts suppliers  will see a shrinking of jobs. Inevitable? Yes. Though tragic as it is for these segments of the community, I believe we have reached “peak car”.

Here’s some of the evidence;

* In previous economic rebounds global car sales have maintained levels of growth, not so this past recession.

* Worldwide cycling commuter growth has jumped 47-80% in the past decade.

* E-bike & scooter sales in Europe are showing very strong growth.

* In the USA total miles driven by young people since 2001 has fallen by 23%.

* Other signs like increased transit-oriented development, huge growth in car-sharing & tele-commuting suggest a major shift in attitudes.

I saw the effects of a dying car manufacturing industry first-hand in Niagara, Southern Ontario, where we lived for several years and where General Motors Canada had a large parts plant. The auto industry in Canada was experiencing the “worst downturn in a generation”.  By 2002, the auto industry in the province had 15 000 fewer employees than in the peak of the 1990’s.

Global economic competitiveness had been clearly identified as a risk to society in St Catharines (as per the city-wide sustainability report I was associated with) with one clear solution being to build a “green, creative economy”. This is something that has been echoed by even the lobbyists for the auto worker sector.

But what does this look like? The best examples Adelaide can look to are the poster-children of industrial decline & stumbling renewal – Detroit (USA) and Malmo (Sweden).

Both cities lost thousands of jobs in recent decades and saw a rapid loss of economic health when their industrial car manufacturing industries went into decline. Fortunately for them, they are many years down the track of renewal, something SA is yet to face.

1) Detroit

From the 1950’s Detroit “moved out to the suburbs”. With cheap land (accessed via freeways) urban neighbourhoods were carved up and racial inequality created ghettos – neighbourhoods with “self-reinforcing cycles of poverty” (From “A New Direction Needed for Detroit” – Sustainable Cities Collective, August 2013). So much empty space prompted the term “urban prairie”. Municipalities were unwilling to amalgamate to provide one another with shared resources. It’s a more complex picture than that certainly, but one which is replicated throughout many US towns & cities, and whose foundation is based on one assumption – abundant, cheap oil.

With sustainability principles in mind – it’s obvious one crucial stimulant Detroit needs is economic diversity. It’s a way to absorb economic shocks – by spreading risk.

What does Detroit need? It desperately needs innovation & mandated sustainability action to reverse the economic scars caused by inequality & industrial collapse. Unfortunately, there is no single, one-factor-above-all-others solution. But the best Detroit good news story of late is food. Gardens. Urban gardens to be exact.

There are now between 1500 and 2000 urban garden spaces.  There are 30 000 acres of derelict space. The City is looking at a $30 million plan to buy 300 acres to farm timber and fruit trees. There are 45 schools now gardening in their playgrounds. Mostly its a grassroots-up resurgence and while it’s a good news story that might appear lightweight compared to the myriad of issues this city faces, there are abundant win-win outcomes that make it worthy of applause.

Urban farming is supplying spin-offs that include training for agriculture, horticulture, light construction, housing restoration, tourism & heritage building management. The odd post war-zone-like nature of this city has brought significant attention from academics, social research writers, urban planners – enough that the narrative from Detroit is – you wanna try it? Go ahead.

That open-minded recovery-from-crisis head space is one South Australia will need more of.

2) Malmo

This southern Swedish port experienced major economic shocks in the 1970’s. Shipbuilding closures in the 1990’s resulted in the loss of 35 000 inhabitants. Coupled with a broader economic recession in Sweden, Malmo was forced to revisualize itself.

Population dislocation (a la Detroit) also impacted Malmo. So it connected itself via a 16km bridge to Denmark and branded itself a major commercial hub of European business. It also branded itself an experimental city (albeit in a more stiff, bureaucratic, northern European sort of way compared to the US). This openness to allow failure to be an acceptable part of it’s experimental city tag has helped enhance Malmo’s reputation as a major education hub (Malmo’s very internationally-focussed university opened in 1998).


As a commercial hub, it has attracted a diverse clientele of commercial, financial, health & transportation industries. The number and variety of workplaces increased from 23 000 – 33 000 in the past 10 years.

Malmo is not without social pressures – from a high % of marginalized immigrant groups and high unemployment – but at the centre of all the city’s transformation has been a strong commitment to social sustainability.

So many parallels……..

It’s only a matter of time before here we have to exhale, let go and take in a full, deep (& scary) new breath.